Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Oliver, Jamie. Jamie at home: cook your way to the good life. Hyperion: 2007.

Not much one for celebrity chefs until we started watching cooking shows, I have turned out to be a food voyeur. I love cooking shows. I am a fan of certain chefs. And yes, the Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver himself, has a fan in me. Specifically the series Jamie at Home, which I am anxiously waiting for on DVD so I can watch it again and again and drool at his garden and his kitchen and his amazing outdoor oven.

While waiting, though, I will satisfy myself with the most excellent (and enormous) Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life. It's full of delicious-looking recipes, and notes about the produce and meat used in the recipes. A food voyeur like me doesn't really need it to be a functional cook book. Just pretty and tasty-looking. Which it is.

It is also functional. The kofta was the "Grilled lamb kofta kebabs with pistachios and spicy salad wrap" on pg. 44. It was just as easy as the recipe made it sound, not to mention straightforward and very tasty. I would reproduce the recipe here, but I'm not sure that I'm allowed. Copyright and all that.

A warning: if you find books that are written extremely informally, this may not be the book for you: "However, my favorite thing to do is boil them for 10 minutes, toss them with some good olive oil, salt, pepper, a little swig of red or white wine vinegar, woody herbs like thyme and rosemary and some smashed garlic, and roast the little monkeys at 350 F until they're lightly golden, with intense flavor. Come on Eileen, now we're talking!" The monkeys in question are carrots and beets. Mm. Monkeys.

Friday, April 25, 2008

kofta away!

I cooked lamb kofta over the barbeque last night, and I happen to be proud enough that I have to brag about it. I meant to take a photo but completely forgot. Suffice to say it not only tasted delicious, but it looked really damn good too.

I don't often cook with lamb (actually, I think this was maybe the first time) and so I was a little nervous. I also had to deal with the fact that the only pistachios available were of the salted, in-shell variety; so I had to shell and rince them before adding them to the lamb mix. Aside from these very minor inconveniences, the recipe really was as fast and easy as it looked.

The idea for serving is to toast up a flatbread then pile salad greens plus lemony red onions on top, then add kofta and top with plain yoghurt. I decided to make a cucumber-yoghurt sauce instead, and this was really my crowning achievement. Because I am not a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants cook. I need to have a recipe and I need to follow it exactly. I have been tentatively stepping out of this shell.

And boy, did it turn out well! I added fresh mint, finely chopped cucumber, cilantro and freshly squeezed lemon juice to the yoghurt, turning it a little more saucy. Then I added a touch of salt and also just a wee bit of sugar, because I found it a bit too bitter -- and it was just perfect to top everything off. If I was doing it again, I would add diced tomato and squeezed garlic. But that's a minor quibble.

The kofta itself were a little bit... bland, maybe. I would add a bit more salt and a bit more pepper next time, and definitely a couple cloves of garlic, I think. And I would grind up the pistachios first as opposed to just adding them whole to the mix. They were a little chunkier than they needed to be. I wouldn't want them creamed, of course, but maybe a little smaller in size. And I'd add a few more, too. If they happened to be hulled for me.

All in all -- kofta = success! Love bbq season.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

duck watching and frog listening

A spontaneous trip with my aunt to a flooded field near a creek led to some lovely birds last night:
  • two yellow-shafted flickers
  • mallards
  • ring-necked ducks
  • buffleheads
  • two green-winged teals
  • a black duck
  • a male pintail

The pintail was in his very best breeding plumage. Seeing them is normally a treat; this time was an experience. He was gorgeous. Previous to heading out for the ducks, we had a great look at a male turkey doing his best to impress the ladies. The ladies didn't look too impressed. Felt a little sorry for him. He sure impressed me, but I guess I'm not a turkey.

There were also several peepers doing their thing quite loudly, and later on in the evening the wood frogs got going. Now that I know what to listen for with the wood frogs, I realize just how many times I may have heard them without realizing. It's a very innocuous sound, too, next to the exuberant peepers.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Ed Lawrence and chickens

A couple of things of note for today:

1. For some reason, I missed that Ed Lawrence has a book. I think I probably knew that, but haven't really clued into it. It's now on my list. I can probably get it from the library. I expect it is awesome, but with two terms of school coming up I have to watch my spending. I have always loved listening to Ed on Ontario Today. It used to make me feel grown-up. Now it's about his gardening tips. As an aside -- he never looks the way I expect him to. Each time I see a photo I'm surprised.

2. Today, the City of Waterloo is considering a proposed bylaw regarding raising urban chickens. Thinking about urban chickens leaves me with two questions: a) does one ask one's neighbours if one wants two chickens in one's backyard? and b) what are the best books to tell me about how to raise chickens? I think my grandfather would have gotten a kick out of me trying to raise chickens in my urban back yard. I know my uncle is going to laugh at me.

Not that we have decided we're going to have chickens, not by a long shot. But it's kind of a cool thought, isn't it?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

thoughts on skinny moose

I have finally seen moose in Algonquin Park. Yesterday after work I left straight to drive to a little spot where fishy and I were meeting near the West Gate, and on my drive through the park I encountered two deer, what I believe was a screech owl, and three moose. Heretofore, I have to admit that though I have seen moose many other places, and have spent a fair bit of time every year for the past three or four in Algonquin during both winter and summer, I had never seen a moose actually in the park.

The three moose I saw were looking a little rough. Okay, the first two were looking emaciated. It has not been a good winter for ungulates anywhere, and here in the park there are still large patches of snow and a lot of ice on the lakes. The third one I saw looked like he had a little more meat on his bones, but it occurs to me, maybe this is part of the reason that males loose their antlers in the fall? Because they clearly don't have the strength to carry them around through the end of the winter and into the spring.

I also thought, my god they look mangy, but it occurred to me just before I saw the third that I believe moose also go through a bit of a shedding process in the spring, and lose their heavier winter coats.

The other thing that occurred to me was that I really think people shouldn't be allowed to get out of their cars and chase wildlife. The first two moose, the really wretched ones, were being pursued by tourists with cameras. I thought about stopping and snarking, but that never makes me feel good, and I doubt it really actually helps. And if I had never seen a moose before, I would probably want some photos, even of a sickly moose. Those poor moose really don't have the energy to waste getting away from tourists.

So, instead of feeling really down on humanity, I decided to feel good about the fact that I did see moose, and a screech owl, and deer (who were looking hungry, but not nearly as hungry as the moose) and that I am here for a weekend in the sun, and am going to go birdwatching today.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Mr. Droopy

I made an impulse plant purchase earlier this year. The IGA on my way home from work has some of the most interesting plants I have ever seen in a grocery store, including beautiful cacti and other weird succulents. But the plant that caught my eye was a little banana plant, hanging out with the potted pineapples and coffee plants. You know the kind, in the little 4-inch pots with the colourful tags, that appeal to people who like the idea of growing a plant that produces something they are familiar with (like coffee, pineapples or bananas).

Did I mention that it was January in Quebec when I bought this plant?

The next day, I drove my banana plant, tucked in a bag, into work with me. Now, the car I was driving at that point did not have a working heater. Also, the parking lot is quite large, and by the time I got in to work that morning I had to park in the back forty and walk.

Now, January in Quebec can be quite cold. This particular day turned out to be the coldest day of the year.

By the time the banana plant was sitting on my desk, it was looking a little desperate. The leaves, previously so glossy and green, were now dull and wilting. All except for one, which had been hiding behind one of the larger leaves. The stem was still quite crisp. So, despite the skepticism of my co-workers, I set him on my desk in the south sun that pours through the window, christened him Mr. Droopy, and let him decide whether or not he wanted to keep growing (see the post from yesterday for a description of my gardening philosophy, which extends even more so to indoor plants).

Three months later, Mr. Droopy's got seven new leaves, plus an eighth starting to spiral up from the centre of the stalk. The other damaged leaves are slowly falling off, and he looks less morose. He is gorgeous. When I get him home in a couple weeks, I'm going to have to repot him and give him a good feeding.

This morning, when I came in to work, I noticed that he had little water droplets on the tips of his healthiest leaves. Now, I knew that banana plants needed heat and to be fairly moist but in well-drained soil; it occurred to me this morning that I know nothing else about banana plants. So I had no idea whether or not the water droplets were a good thing (am I overwatering? Is excessive transpiration healthy? Is this a sign that he is very very happy?)

Gardeners, by and large, do not put together beautiful websites, by the way. Most nursery and seed websites are appallingly bad and very hard to navigate around.

Anyway. I still don't know about the droplets, but I do know now that there are an enormous variety of decorative banana plants out there, and that much of the info on growing bananas relates to growing them outside, and that they like to be heavily fed, and that I can put Mr. Droopy outside for the summer and bring him back inside for the winter. In the spirit of the internet, mind you, I have no idea whether or not I should cut him back and leave him in a cool spot over next winter, or whether I should put him in the sunniest window I can find and have an extra light for him.

I'll update as I find out more info. This may be a job for the *gasp* public library...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

musings on the will to live

So, yes. Of the earlier seedlings planted, all the tomato seedlings came up, and got a little scrawny from the lack of light (they sprouted faster than I expected, and I didn't tell fishy to move them to the sunroom soon enough) but by all reports they are doing fine. The peppers are taking longer than I expected, but I am sure part of that is due to cold temperatures. More than one are up now, so that's good. The peppers I really want, because I will make jelly with them again.

And much to my surprise, all the asclepias sprouted! And fast, too. They were up as fast as the tomatoes, and got their first true leaves faster too. Who knew? I expected them to be too soggy, as I over-wet the seeding mix I had them in.

One of the things Abbie Zabar says that always gives me hope is that plants want to grow. So you can do a lot of terrible things to most plants, and they'll still try to grow through it. Seeds especially. This is part of my gardening strategy. I figure that the plants are going to try to grow anyways, so any help I give them is totally a bonus. If the plant doesn't have the will to live even with the help I give it, well, I tried. Generally, this works out quite well for me, and surprisingly well for most of my plants.

Incidentally, the latest Norfolk pine in the house is showing every sign of being a wuss. In my experience, most Norfolk pines are wusses. So is rosemary. And lobelia. And thunbergia. And morning glory. Asclepias, on the other hand, is a fighter.

/insert random hockey note (I promise not to do this very often)

It's a good thing the asclepias is a fighter, because the Ottawa Senators crushed me again this year, despite all the very loud yelling and cheering I did. If this year's Ottawa Senators were a plant, they would be the hostas in our front yard -- looking awesome at the beginning of the season, and wilting away to burnt-out husks by the end. Ah well. I am going to transplant those hostas to a more suitable location, where they will flourish. And Bryan Murray, sadly, going to be forced to do some uprooting of his own.

/end random hockey note (seriously, the season is over, I'm done)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Zabar, Abbie. The potted herb. Stewart, Tabori and Chang: 1988.

I am cheating a little by reviewing this book. I have had it for years. I think, to be honest, that it was the first gardening book I ever purchased for myself. I bought it as a hardcover. I don't usually buy hardcovers but this one is absolutely lovely as a hardcover specimen. Unfortunately, much to my dismay, a raindrop hit it once and the matting on the cover was discoloured in one place, which is frankly ridiculous. Shouldn't be that easy, especially for a garden book.

What attracted me in the first place were Zabar's pen drawings, which are whimsical and delightful and perfect for this whimsical, delightful little book. Frankly, the drawings are really much of the charm of the book itself. Zabar's style of writing is charming, but sometimes a little... well, I suppose patronizing might be the term, although it's not quite right. I can ignore those moments. Some of the data is also dated, including contact information for various suppliers. But that's also easily ignored.

What drives me a little crazy is how easy she makes everything sound. Growing rosemary is not that easy! I have tried it numerous times. I always, always kill it. The one time I didn't kill it, fishy did (although if we are honest with ourselves, I didn't kill it because I really hadn't had time yet). But I suppose one of the things about gardening books is that it gives me a standard to aspire to. So I will probably buy another pot of rosemary this spring and try again.

This book makes me want to do wonderful things with herbs in pots. But what I really love about it is the little bits of historical information and folklore that thread their way through the text. Herbs have a long, sometimes crazy history (the Greeks, for example, used to put curses on basil, and the Roman man who accepted a sprig of basil from his lover was destined to love her for life). I read this stuff and get all inspired, not just to garden in pots, but to plant a bay laurel tree to keep the lightning and flames from entering my house; and maybe even to write a short story or two about the beekeeper who rubs thyme on the hives to entice the bees.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

i'm starting to feel like an adult

I may end up posting a whole bunch today. I wonder if I should hold off, so I've got some stuff to say next week too... but this is exciting. The new dining room table is here:

I think it looks great.

growing again

It is raining. Things are growing, or starting to. I would have taken pictures except that I have had bad experiences in the past with cameras in the rain.

The ground is extremely soggy today, and there are portions of the back yard, and the front boulevard, that are completely covered in a mat of leaves from last fall. We kept an eye on that, so I'm not sure how it happened -- but if the leaves in the front don't get dealt with, they are going to kill the grass completely. I guess I could plant sedum there, then.

I haven't really had a good look at the front yard, but I walked around the back yard in the rain this morning. The iris I planted are starting to come up, or some of them are. It looks like I planted them a little too shallowly in the fall, so I think I'll lay some thick compost mulch around them this spring. The fritillaria is shooting up, the daylilies are starting to grow (no word yet on whether or not the ones I planted, the ones I got instead of the salvia, are growing; I can't remember where I planted them). There are tulips and croci sprouting up everywhere, with apparent minimal damage from squirrels. I half wonder if it's because the squirrels are full of birdseed. Daffodils and hyacinths are up. I couldn't tell if the ferns and the single dog-tooth violet I got from Veseys have sprouted around the tree. Since I didn't get any photos today, here's a photo by fishy of the fritillaria in bloom from last year (it was quite spectacular):

The spring garlic is going like mad. And interestingly, one of the rhubarb plants, both of which I thought were quite dead, is alive. I don't exactly know what to do about that. I do want rhubarb in my garden, but my suspicion is that it is not going to do at all well where it is. I don't think rhubarb really likes to be moved, though. I don't really have time to do it today anyways, since if there is any garden work to be done it will be to move the hostas out of the front yard and into the back somewhere, and then maybe even move the grass to the front.

The shallots I planted last year and didn't manage to harvest are all up this year, which kind of blows my mind a bit. I will have to take them out, but I don't know if I can do anything with them (like divide them and let them grow, and harvest them?) or not. Will have to do some reading.

Will have photos of the sprouted plants in the sunroom, and of my efforts to plant strawberries later on.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

happy bird times!

Spring birds are definitely back. I have to say, to my chagrin, the phoebes are back in earnest -- I saw one singing like mad from the top of a tree as I walked back from the cafeteria with my coffee. I could hear him once I was back in the library too. The windows here are hardly sealed tight.

Scaups and ring-necked ducks are on the river, and I saw a black duck dabbling in the driving range/lake across the road from work here. Song sparrows, swamp sparrows and tree sparrows are all singing, robins wake me up in the morning, and the grackles are really actually quite gorgeous.

I've also figured out that my summer schedule will allow for a four-day trip to Pelee, and a four-day trip to Tobermory later on. Hooray!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Wilson, Emily Herring (ed.) Two gardeners: A friendship in letters. Beacon: 2003.

I am getting inspired as I start looking at librarian blogs all over the place. Let's try my hand at reviewing books! I've always done a little of that over at bluepixie.com but it's never been permanent. But I figure, since I read a fair number of garden-related and cookbooks, why don't I just pop the reviews I have in here. Good for record purposes, if nothing else, to remind myself of what I might consider giving to others.

I will be putting a link to the book I am currently reading in the sidebar, I think, although for now it's a link to the one I have just finished because I haven't picked up anything else yet. That said, the next one is on its way from Amazon, to arrive in my excited hands by next weekend...

The following book I was thinking I would give to my grandmother after I was done with it, but it's not really in any shape to be gifted anymore. Or really shared. But I'll suggest it to Grandma as a library read, I think.

Two Gardeners: A Friendship in Letters
(Emily Herring Wilson, ed.)

I picked this book up at Nicholas Hoare on Sussex St. and have finally finished reading it after several months. It's been in my bag for a while, and unfortunately looks a little worse for wear (there was an applesauce accident). This is a collection of letters from Katharine S. White (editor of the New Yorker and wife of E.B. White) and Elizabeth Lawrence (a garden writer from South Carolina). The letters themselves are wonderful, but I'm not sure about the editing. It's hard to know without seeing the letters myself, but one gets the impression that the editing was a bit heavy-handed in an effort to impose a narrative on the correspondence. I don't like feeling like I'm missing part of the story. Some of the best stuff is outside the narrative; Lawrence in particular had a wicked sense of humour, and I thoroughly enjoyed when she got off-topic. All-in-all, informative (I have picked up a couple of titles I think I should have a look at now) and a very pleasant read.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

birds in the morning

I have neglected to mention the birds. There are birds. They are starting to come around in good numbers now. For most of the winter, all we've seen are pine grosbeaks, redpolls, chickadees, and the occasional nuthatch and woodpeckers (of the downy and hairy persuasion.) Sometimes there are evening grosbeaks, and I did see a beautiful cooper's hawk at one point.

Spring is on its way. There are now red-winged blackbirds at the feeder constantly, singing my favourite spring songs, along with grackles. Robins are starting to sing at work and I've heard the mourning doves in the morning for a couple weeks now. The first time I heard it I was surprised to realize I'd missed it...

With the river opening, the omnipresent goldeneyes and mallards will soon be joined by other ducks. I am 90% sure I saw a black-backed gull on the ice this morning, but I was on the parkway and unable to stop to get a good look. They're pretty hard to miss, though.